Lessons Of The Oakland Teacher’s Strike
Childcare Isn’t Nice, It Is Strategic
Our country is experiencing a reawakening of the organized left. From Oklahoma to LA, thousands of public school teachers (a historically feminized field) are reminding us what it means to build collective power. More importantly, teachers are also redefining where their strikes are fought and what resources we need as socialists to fight with them.
A strong coalition of teachers, parents, community members, and students themselves built the power of the Oakland teachers’ strike. One of the key takeaways the EBDSA Socialist Feminist caucus found is that people don't organize in spite of having kids. 2019 is seeing the rapid radicalization of thousands of people across the country precisely BECAUSE of the crisis of care created by capitalism, and how it disproportionately affects those people (parents or teachers) who care for kids. Our job as socialists is to make sure they have what they need to organize with us.
Although a stunning 95% of teachers voted YES for strike authorization, a high participation strike required equal levels of family support. To paraphrase Pastor Jenkins (who organized the main West Oakland Solidarity School and Bread for Ed food hub at Taylor Memorial Church) “empty schools win teacher strikes.”
Building the support necessary to win required recognizing the role that public schools play in people's lives beyond education, and filling the gaps that shutting those schools would create. In the case of Oakland, this kind of social reproduction framework helped the OEA predict the two key challenges to solidarity between parents and teachers: food and childcare.
After months of canvassing and turning out DSA members to rallies in support of the union, the OEA trusted the chapter with the project of coordinating the teacher solidarity efforts. Oakland unified has 37,000 kids, and 70% of them depend on free or reduced school lunches to fulfill their nutritional needs. This program is the direct legacy of the Oakland born Black Panther Party's Free Breakfast Program.
In other words: EBDSA had really big shoes to fill. Bread for Ed was a massive lesson in coalition building, which forced our chapter to create fast alliances with an diverse number of parent, community and faith organizations. The goal was to feed thousand of kids throughout the city, to make sure food insecurity didn’t force parents to cross the picket line. Through these coalitions and a large number of PTA meetings, teachers were also able to encourage community organizations and parents to set up “solidarity schools”: places where working families could drop their kids off to continue going to work.
Even though most families didn't cross the picket line, only the parents in most need utilized solidarity schools from the get-go. For the most part, parents self organized in different ways. Some people rotated shifts taking care of their kid’s friend groups on different days of the week. Other parents took turns utilizing their sick days to keep their kids at home.
Attendance at solidarity schools grew with each day of the strike, particularly in POC neighborhoods such as West Oakland and Chinatown. A common thing to hear from parents bringing their kids to solidarity schools by the end of day seven was: “We are running out of sick days” or “I won’t have access to childcare next
By the end of day seven, the bargaining team reached a tentative contract. As teachers prepared to vote on a contract that didn’t fully address their demands, keeping strong lines was not the only question on many union members’ minds. Members wrote long social media posts speculating whether parents would begin to cross the picket line, undermining the community support they had managed to build. Teachers decided to ratify the tentative agreement with a narrow majority before that possibility became a reality.
For the last two years, the East Bay DSA SocFem caucus has engaged in a slow base-building strategy. So far we have not pursued steering committee seats within our chapter. Instead we’ve focused on creating spaces for raising consciousness on socialist feminist issues, and for holding separate organizing meetings where we put those lessons to practice. We also encourage our members to join official committees within the organization. This allows our members to bring the socialist feminist framework we are building into official DSA conversations.
In April 2018, Maura McMichael (one of the co-chairs of the EBDSA Socialist Feminist caucus) joined the Meetings Committee after the caucus identified childcare as a core issue we wanted to address. The chapter had offered childcare for the first time at its 2018 convention, and members we didn’t even know were parents showed up with their kids. This highlighted the fact that every time a parent shows to our meetings without their kids, someone else is not engaging with socialism to take care of them. The next step we took after this eye-opening event was to push for childcare at all of our general meetings.
As much as parents may like the idea of strike solidarity schools and free childcare, they are not likely to trust you with their kids on the first day. “What we have learned is that after seeing you for a few meetings, parents will trust you with their four year-old; two months later, they will bring the two year-old; a couple months later, they will bring the infant” said Maura. ”Next thing you know, mom is showing up to the meetings.” In many ways, providing consistent and reliable childcare without request has allowed for some of the invisible gendered labor behind our membership to be redistributed. By actively disrupting the systemic perpetuation of inequality within our own organization, we have also created the resources for our chapter to get to know our membership better.
In March 2019, our steering committee approved a Childcare Resolution submitted by the Meetings Committee with strong involvement of the SocFem caucus. This resolution expands the childcare program beyond the general meetings. Starting next month, all official chapter committees will be required to offer childcare at their events. The meetings committee will now provide committees with resources, training and leadership development opportunities for those members who volunteer to do childcare. Most importantly, it will help us identify parents as soon as they enter the organization, and connect them with public education organizing. Maura was the main author of the resolution, and has been key to building our childcare program. Building the support and consensus for this resolution began almost a year prior to the resolution passing, and its convergence with the teacher strike proved fruitful to both our chapter and our strike efforts.
As EBDSA SocFem, we believe that providing childcare and more actively engaging with the parents in our membership before they request childcare would have allowed for us to have a more robust and targeted socialist parent network to activate during the teacher strike. As we move forward with our childcare program, we are acknowledging as a chapter that the active engagement and support of our DSA families will strengthen both our chapter in general and our capacity to fight for public education specifically.
The research it took to build our childcare resolution also proved useful to the solidarity schools during the strike. Maura wrote the liability forms utilized at solidarity schools. The same language approved by the OEA will become part of our childcare program starting this month. Models of intergenerational engagement, such as the ones built by Pittsburgh DSA through Socialist Sprouts, allowed for us to encourage high-school students to volunteer at solidarity schools and Bread for Ed hubs.
This strike was an invaluable lesson for DSA members on the strategic importance of care work to building working class solidarity across racial and class lines. Even though the strike ended, the fight for Oakland’s public education is far from over, and the efforts of our chapter have not gone unnoticed. "If we are going to continue doing base-building work with teachers, parents and students” said Maura, “it is crucial for our organization to create the supportive spaces necessary to engage them in the ongoing struggle for public education."
Building the capacity to support working parents takes resources, and time, but it is crucial to forging the kind of unbreakable solidarity that wins strikes. At the end of the day, when the working class trusts you withtheir kids, they trust you with their future.